What is Leadership?

“Leaders must be willing to sacrifice their own agenda for the hopes of the greater good. Hard choices must be made at the risk of popular unrest.   It is not enough to lead the way, but leaders must be willing to walk with those being led.”

stacie odeneal

Stacie Odeneal
The Odeneal Law Firm

I have spent the past eight months trying to answer the question, “What is a leader?”

After much debate, discussion, research, and quandry, I have found only one answer in which I have even the slightest confidence: 

Much like obscenity, you know it when you see it. 

This conclusion leaves much to be desired for us lawyer types.  In my day, everything you needed to know about leadership you learned from Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People.”  

With just a few carefully chosen vocabulary words like “synergy” and “collaboration” you too could work your way up to middle management or elected positions.  A dash of intentional communication here, a pinch of team organization there, mixed with a studied appreciation of emotional intelligence and, viola! Leadership! 

But as we find ourselves in an era of unprecedented disconnection, it is clear that “Leadership Mad-Libs” no longer suffice to shape and serve our communities, our country, or our world.  Institutions that once wielded great authority are now ignored.  People in positions of perceived power find themselves impotent to initiate even the most trivial of policy.  In a world where no one seems to be in charge, we can no longer fill in the blanks with buzzwords or demonstrate leadership as defined in the days of dial-up internet and flip phones.  

We no longer know how to define leadership. 

But we know it when we see it. 

This conclusion was explored in a 2018 article, “I Follow, therefore I Lead: A Longitudinal Study of Leader and Follower Identity and Leadership in the Marines,” published in the British Journal of Psychology, and reviewed in the Harvard Business Review.  (Peters, Haslam 2018). [1]

The underlying study following 218 Royal Marines through 32 weeks of infantry training.  The soldiers were asked to self-identify as leaders or followers, and then the group was polled to determine which of the soldiers were considered leaders among their peers.  Those who identified themselves as leaders were unable to convince others of their leadership qualities.  But rather those who engaged as followers who were ultimately viewed as leaders by their colleagues. 

The study suggests the “fake it ‘til you make it” model of leadership is no longer sufficient.  Instead of sophisticated shepherds, we have become sophisticated sheep, unwilling to be herded by the person who happens to be holding the shepherd’s crook.  

Our flock demands much more. 

Leaders must be willing to sacrifice their own agenda for the hopes of the greater good. Hard choices must be made at the risk of popular unrest.  It is not enough to lead the way, but leaders must be willing to walk with those being led. 

It is necessary to do that which gives others permission to follow.  

As simplistic as it may seem, this leadership requires everyone to benefit from the opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Modern leaders must appreciate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs more than the hierarchy of power structure.  And more than ever, leadership requires an ability to eliminate the struggle of a dog-eat-dog world in favor of a metaphorical pasture where the lion can co-exist with the lamb. 

Leadership no longer requires scholarship but demands sacrifice.   

We have grown cynical of wolves in sheep’s clothing.  And so those who desire to lead must shed the illusion of leadership in favor of authentic service and genuine concern. 

And while that form of leadership cannot be found in the self-help section of your local bookstore, true leaders will recognize those defining moments as they arise. 

After all, you know leadership when you see it. 


[1] Peters, K. and Haslam, S.A. (2018), I Follow, Therefore I Lead: A Longitudinal Study of Leader and Follower Identity and Leadership in the Marines, Br. J. Psychol., 109: 708-723. doi:10.1111/bjop.12312

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